Sunday, October 10, 2010

More on Gay Teen Suicide: Naming the Problem, Dealing with Religious Roots

Salon is carrying a very good article today by David Crary of AP, about the attempt of schools to deal with bullying of gay youth.  Crary notes that many school administrators and teachers around the country find themselves between a rock and a hard place, as young folks are bullied for being gay or because they are thought to be gay, and as conservative interest groups push back against attempts of the schools to deal with such bullying.  Or to name it for what it is--bullying of gay youths and those perceived to be gay.
One flash point right now is the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota.  The district is located in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, where--as in many large American urban areas with suburbs ringing the inner city--there's a high concentration of middle- and upper-middle class voters inclined to the Republican party and fearful of the kind of progressive ideas thought to emanate from the city and to threaten suburban order and decency.

Five young people have killed themselves in this Minnesota school district this year, and at least two of the suicides have been attributed to gay bullying.  One of these was 15-year old Justin Aaberg, who hanged himself in July after repeated incidents of bullying due to his sexual orientation (his picture is at the top of this posting).  Justin's mother maintains that school officials knew of his bullying and did not do enough to challenge it--because they are afraid of riling the conservative voters in their district who know how to make their lives miserable if they fail to toe the right-wing party line.

Both right-wing activist groups and LGBT groups are urging this school district to formulate a response to the situation in which it now finds itself, with very different recommendations.  Here's Cramer's report about this:
"We believe the bullying policy should put the emphasis on the wrong actions of the bullies and not the characteristics of the victims," said Chuck Darrell of the conservative Minnesota Family Council.
That's a wrongheaded, potentially dangerous approach, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network -- which tries to improve the school climate for gay students nationwide.
"Policies have to name the problem in order to have an impact," said GLSEN's executive director, Eliza Byard. "Only the ones that name it see an improvement."
And this report catches my eye for the following reason: I've been involved for several days now in a dialogue at another blog re: bullying of gay teens.  My dialogue partner claims to be a young gay man.  He's also strongly conservative, in both a religious (Catholic) and political sense.

And he challenges the notion that some youths are killing themselves because they are bullied for being gay.  Like Chuck Darrell of Minnesota Family Council, he wants to maintain that the characteristics of those being bullied are not a determinative factor in their bullying.  It's not gay youth who are being bullied, and they're not being bullied because they're gay.  The gay community is seeking to make political headway by reading these suicides as gay suicides, and people of faith need to resist such politicization of the recent teen suicides.

I agree, of course, with Eliza Byard.  Unless we can name the bullying for what it is--bullying of gay youth or youth thought to be gay--we can't address the problem at any substantive level.  Denying that those gay youth like Justin Aaberg who have tragically ended their lives because they were bullied specifically for being gay robs their lives of meaning.

Ultimately, a nasty religious and political agenda lies behind these attempts to play semantic games with the suicides of gay teens.  As Andrew Sullivan notes yesterday, commenting on the recent horrific story of the torture of a young gay man (and two teens thought to be gay) in New York, we will not make headway with this serious social problem until we confront the religious ideas that implicitly justify bullying of gay youths:
For too long, gay people have been described by too many on the right as a threat to the family, society and decency. Those words have consequences. This is especially true of religious leaders. When even the Pope describes us as "intrinsically disordered" and directed to an "objective moral evil", when Republicans call us a threat to family life, when NOM runs ads of a "storm coming", I hope they understand what these words do to the psyches and souls of the young and impressionable, and to those who need a mere signal to take up arms and attack us.
When you do these things to the least of my brethren, you do them to me, said Jesus. I pray that those who say they follow him would sometimes remember those words when it comes to the rhetoric that gay children and teens cannot help but hear.
We have much work to do, those of us who want to make headway with the problem of bullying of gay youth and to address the religious roots of this bullying.  On the one hand, we often meet stone walls when we try to hold school districts accountable.

When the Anoka-Hennepin stories began to break in early September, I responded to a request from to email a letter to administrators of that school district, asking them to deal proactively with the problem of bullying of gay youths in their schools.  My copy of that letter bounced back from the email box of one local school board member, Kathy Tingelstad, a former Republican state representative.  Her box was not accepting email.

When the email bounced back, I simply found another way to email the letter to Tingelstad.  And in due time, I got back a rather defensive acknowledgment from an official of the school district, who assured me that the district has been doing all it can to deal with these issues, but who did not address the fact that one of its board members had evidently chosen not to receive feedback from the public about the five suicides of youths in this district in a single year.

And on the other hand, we also have work to do in our communities of faith.  Yesterday, I found myself censored at a centrist Catholic website when I left a comment asking the blog owner, who claims to support progressive Catholic and political causes while she plays to the center, to reconsider her view that "we're all marginalized."

As I pointed out, it's not difficult to ascertain through tools of social analysis that some people in any society are decisively marginalized in quite specific ways-- in ways that marginalize those specific people  but not other members of the social mainstream (of the center that this Catholic commentator vigorously defends).  It is not difficult at all to show that gay and lesbian persons are marginalized in our society in very specific ways, and that these manifestations of marginalization affect vulnerable gay and lesbian youths in ways that often lead to tragedy.

The owner of this centrist Catholic blog responds that Jesus died to save all of us, and she seeks to dismiss my call for solidarity with the marginal by employing language typical of the political and religious right: it's progressive elitism that tries to claim moral high ground that progressives can't occupy, since they are merely one voice in a broader political conversation.  Centrists need to listen to all sides, and avoid being swayed by the special claims of either left or right.  Only the centrist position is objective and privileged, since it represents the wisdom of the middle--and we all know that wisdom lies in the middle.

As my comment pointed out, this reading of the life of Jesus makes mincemeat of the abundant evidence that, far from occupying the center or being comfortable in the center, Jesus stood on the margins.  Always.  He persistently refused to go to Jerusalem, to the administrative and cultic center of his nation, and persistently avoided allying himself with the clerical elite of his culture.

Instead, he ate and drank with those on the social margins, and it was because of such solidarity with outcasts that he was crucified.  He shared the fate of those outcasts with whom he made himself one in the act of breaking bread.

Though Jesus came to save all, Jesus also always stands with those on the margins.  The enactment of his salvific love for all is quite specific in its demands that we stand in solidarity not with the powerful of our society, or with those at the center who provide cover for the powerful, but with those on the margins.  As Jesus proclaims love for all, he also demonstrates to us through his solidarity with outcasts how his followers are to model love for their societies by afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And we are definitely not all marginal.  The grand cop-out of the center, with its easy rhetoric about how Jesus embraces everyone, is the refusal of centrists to stand with those on the margins, when such solidarity exacts a price from the center.  When it demands costly discipleship.

And so those in the center routinely stand with those who have power and influence in any given society--and that is to say, with those on the right.   In doing so, they make null and void their claim to have the superior, privileged, objective vantage point of the middle, with its critical insights into the flaws of both left and right.

Jesus stands decisively with gay teens being kicked, pummeled, and scorned because they are gay.  He does not stand with those kicking, pummeling, and insulting these teens.  Or with those who protect and excuse this abuse.  Or with churches in which one rests easy with vague, vapid proclamations about love for everyone, while one refuses to take up the cross and walk alongside the poor, the suffering, the social misfit.   While one lives comfortably with the definition of every gay or lesbian person born in the world as disordered, even as one proclaims love and welcome for everyone.
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